Cold War and Hot War: The United States Enters the Age of Nuclear Deterrence and Collective Security, 1945–1953

The end of World War II marked the beginning of a new era for the United States, for its foreign policy could no longer stand on the twin pillars of noninvolvement and commercialism and its defense policy on the dual concepts of maritime security and wartime mobilization. The second maiming of Europe and the collapse of its empires in Africa and Asia opened international relations to a bewildering array of conflicts that carried the potential for wider wars. Had the United States followed its diplomacy of the marketplace and relied on broad oceans to protect it, the nation might have avoided the traumas of foreign wars, military alliances, and higher levels of peacetime military spending. The United States might also have lost its political and economic power and mortgaged the safety of its population. The creation of nuclear weapons and their adaptation to intercontinental bombers stripped the shield of time and space from American security. Amid the casualties of World War II lay the corpse of traditional American defense policy.

Although the development of an alternative policy came slowly and with much agonizing, the United States government committed the nation—with public approval—to a new strategy. Instead of waiting for general war to engulf the United States or depending upon the nation’s industrial and manpower potential to discourage potential enemies, the United States adopted the strategy of deterrence. To deter war, so policymakers and theorists reasoned, the nation required ready military forces and the political will to threaten their use or to use them if deterrence failed. For sheer destructiveness, accomplished with shocking speed, nuclear weapons appeared to be the ultimate deterrent, and from the birth of the first atomic bombs, policymakers pondered the potential of nuclear weapons to make war obsolete. The more farsighted strategists like academic Bernard Brodie, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, diplomat George Kennan, and scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer wondered, however, if the threat of nuclear retaliation would be a truly credible deterrent, since the enormity of nuclear war might be out of proportion to the threat.

Drawing upon its experience in coalition warfare in two world wars, the United States complemented unilateral nuclear deterrence with a commitment to collective defense and nonnuclear deterrence. One instrument of collective security became the United Nations (UN), an international body championed by the United States and created by international agreement by forty-six nations on June 26, 1945. The second instrument was the regional military alliance, allowed by the United Nations Charter. The United States joined its first such alliance since its 1778 treaty with France when it signed the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (the Rio Pact) on September 2, 1947, and bound itself with nineteen other nations for the defense of the Western Hemisphere.

The concept of nuclear deterrence and collective security did not develop in a political vacuum, for the United States found itself at odds with the Soviet Union over a wide array of international issues. Although American diplomats in Russia warned that the Soviet Union did not view the postwar world in terms acceptable to American interests, the Truman administration attempted to deal with the Stalin regime as if it had some interest in postwar cooperation. In one sense the United States and the Soviet Union shared similar characteristics. Both were latecomers to the arena of international politics; both had large populations and industrial resources that spanned entire continents; both had been drawn into continental rivalries that had produced two global wars; both had messianic visions about the nature of political organization and economic development; both had just demonstrated an awesome ability for military action; both had no intention of allowing the traditional European patterns of nationalism and imperialism to define the international system in the last half of the twentieth century.

At the heart of the American-Soviet rivalry lay an irreconcilable bond between national interest and ideology that ensured global competition. If the United States and the Soviet Union had behaved only according to the dictates of state interest, the course of history since 1945 might have been different. Such was not the case. The two nations tended to see their rivalry as a clash between principles, with their own national futures tied to the success of such concepts as capitalism and socialism, individual liberty and state security, religious freedom and scientific materialism, and international diversity and the ultimate victory of the Communist commonwealth. The opposing system represented the greatest threat to peace, for its very nature ensured war. Global conflict was inevitable and indivisible as long as the opposing system existed.

The primary arena of East-West competition was Europe. The rivals’ sphere of concern ran from Great Britain to the borders of prewar Eastern Europe, but the rivals’ writ ran along the borders of their occupation forces. By 1949 the United States had merged its occupation zone in Germany with those of Great Britain and France into a single West Germany that had all the attributes of an independent state except an armed force and a foreign policy. The Soviet Union took similar steps to ensure that its portion of divided Germany fell into its political orbit. In 1948 the only nation that had a coalition government that included non-Communists, Czechoslovakia, fell to a Russian-approved internal coup. The Russians then closed overland communications between West Germany and the jointly occupied city of Berlin, but an Allied airlift of nine months’ duration saved West Berlin from Communist absorption. In Eastern Europe the Russians established Communist governments in Poland, Romania, and Hungary. Nationalist Communist resistance movements provided new regimes in Albania and Yugoslavia; the former remained under Russian influence, but the latter, governed by the guerrilla hero Josip Broz (Tito), did not fall entirely into the Soviet embrace.

The developing anti-Communist coalition in the West had its share of early “Cold War” victories during the same period. With the assistance of American funds, channeled through intelligence agencies and international labor organizations, France and Italy eliminated their Communist parties from their new republican governments by 1949. In military terms Great Britain created a new continental alliance system in 1946 by joining France in the Dunkirk Agreement, which joined those two countries in an alliance. In the Brussels Pact of 1948 the Dunkirk partners extended the alliance to the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Belgium. Recurring crises in Greece and Turkey provided the Truman administration with an opportunity to meet the Communist challenge directly. Informed by the British that they could no longer support the Greek royalist government in its civil war against Communist rebels and responding to a Turkish plea for assistance against Russian pressures to revise the international convention on control of the Straits, the president requested $400 million in military and economic assistance for Greece and Turkey in March 1947. The program for Greece included a military mission to reform the Greek army. President Truman described his request in terms of a new diplomatic principle, labeled “the Truman Doctrine,” which committed the United States “to help free peoples to maintain . . . their national integrity against aggressive movements that seek to impose upon them totalitarian regimes.” To support the policy of “containment” described by Truman, Congress voted the aid package two months later. Again responding to a presidential initiative, Congress a year later approved a $13 billion program of economic assistance—the Marshall Plan—for Western Europe.

The widening domestic consensus to challenge the Soviet Union in international affairs drew much of its force from the conviction that Soviet agents or “fellow travelers” had infiltrated Western governments. The impetus of the concern over Communist subversion came from several highly publicized cases that linked American and British citizens with Soviet spying, primarily upon the wartime development of the atomic bomb. Although Soviet espionage had limited influence upon the development of a Russian military threat, the Truman administration and its Republican critics vied with one another to purge the federal bureaucracy—especially the State Department—of people they regarded as agents (few in number and quickly eliminated) or “Communist sympathizers,” who could be variously defined and counted. Anti-Communism in every form became the rage of the time. The “Second Red Scare,” unlike its predecessor of 1918–1921, popularized a more aggressive foreign policy, at the substantial cost of individual rights and sober analysis of the real Soviet threat. The issue of internal security, however, alerted otherwise complacent Americans to the fact that the Soviet Union had interests beyond its formal borders.

The collapse of European influence throughout the rest of the world added another dimension to the Cold War. In a sense the United States replaced Great Britain as the Western player in the “Great Game,” as the Anglo-Russian competition of the nineteenth century had been called. From the Middle East to China, the world war had rewritten the terms of political competition, and those terms pitted the United States and Russia as the missionaries for two very different forms of postcolonial political organization. With few exceptions the resistance movements of World War II had fallen to native leaders dedicated or sympathetic to Communism, if not Russian domination. China provided the most conspicuous example of a new form of conflict: A Communist inspired “people’s revolutionary war.” Built on the foundation of rural-based partisan warfare, political indoctrination and organization, and subversion, the Chinese Communists under the leadership of Mao Zedong defeated the Nationalists (the Quomindang) in 1949 and chased Chiang Kai-shek and his surviving followers to Taiwan.

The “loss” of China suggested an international Communist conspiracy orchestrated from Moscow. Certainly there was real evidence of Communist activism in several guerrilla wars that blossomed after V-J Day. In French Indochina, the Philippines, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, and Burma, anticolonial insurgents preached and fought for an Asian version of Marxism. In a divided Korea the Soviet Union adopted a Communist regime while the United States accepted a nationalist, anti-Communist government. Only the civil war that accompanied the division of independent India and Pakistan and the Jewish-Arab war of 1948, which created the state of Israel, fell outside the pattern of Communist revolution. In one way or another, largely through the provision of military and economic assistance or indirect political support, the United States became a party to most of the wars of decolonization. American policymakers feared that Communist victories meant losses to the “Free World,” and their European partners insisted that containment in Europe depended upon continued access to the resources of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. The Truman administration did not embrace the concept of indivisible containment, but it did not accept Communist victories in the Third World either, for to do so weakened the role of the United Nations and strengthened the position of those domestic critics (largely Republican) who held the administration responsible for the fall of China.

Foreign policy problems, then, abounded in the postwar world. As Secretary of State Dean Acheson repeatedly stated, the problems did not lend themselves to quick, easy, inexpensive solutions. Nor did a general policy of containment or a strategy of deterrence and collective defense translate themselves into military programs. Instead, the federal government moved from crisis to crisis, from budget to budget, extemporizing programs characterized by political controversy and public misunderstanding. Nevertheless, by the time the Truman administration left office in 1953, it had laid the foundations of an enduring national security policy and organization.

Groping for a New Strategy

The crises of the Cold War’s first five years forced Harry S. Truman to look hard at American military capability, and he found very little. Driven by domestic politics, which focused upon the performance of the economy, the reduction and balancing of the federal budget, and the close rivalry of the Democrats and Republicans, the president shared with Congress the responsibility for the nation’s pallid defenses. In April 1947, as Congress considered aid to Greece and Turkey, he learned that the United States had no ready atomic bombs and that the Strategic Air Command (SAC) might not hit its targets anyway. At the height of the Berlin crisis a year later, Truman told his advisers he would like to give the Russians hell, but Secretary of State George C. Marshall responded that he thought one American division in Europe was not an adequate instrument for even the threat of hell. Briefed in February 1949 on planned atomic bomb production, Truman exclaimed, “Boy, we could blow a hole clean through the earth.” But he then soberly remembered that the stockpile of bombs would not be ready until 1951, and by then the Soviets might have nuclear weapons too. Truman doubted that he would ever again order the use of atomic bombs unless the Russians struck first. In September 1949 Air Force reconnaissance planes picked up the first radioactive evidence of a Russian nuclear explosion on August 29, in Siberia.

Although his intelligence advisers missed the end of the American nuclear monopoly by three years, Truman had been facing the nuclear future since 1945, when his own scientists and Secretary of War Stimson had urged him to provide a system of controls that would prevent the future use of the atomic bomb. In domestic terms, nuclear controllers wanted an organization for research and development outside military control; in 1946 Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act, which created a five-man civilian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The AEC included a military applications division, so military concerns were not slighted, but the agency became a cockpit of controversy about nuclear programs. A study directed by Dean Acheson and David E. Lilienthal urged that the United States establish an international regime for the control of nuclear weapons. As Congress considered the law that created the AEC, Truman approved a proposal to internationalize nuclear weapons and sent Bernard Baruch to the UN to present what became known as the “Baruch Plan.” The plan asked that the UN create an international atomic energy commission that would control all aspects of atomic affairs, from the mining of fissionable materials to the use of nuclear power for peaceful purposes. The Security Council would mete out “condign punishment” to any nation that turned nuclear power to military purposes. Although the administration’s commitment to the plan was at best modest, its proposal foundered on the provisions for on-site inspection. Already committed to its own nuclear program, the Soviet Union ensured that the Baruch Plan disappeared into the mire of UN debate and study.

In 1946 and 1948 the United States conducted atomic tests at the Pacific atolls of Bikini and Eniwetok and learned more about nuclear effects and weapons design. The 1946 tests did little to advance the deliverability of atomic bombs. The weight of each nuclear device remained in the five-ton range and the yield stayed below 50 kilotons [the explosive equivalent of thousands of tons of TNT]. Now working on reduced budgets, the nuclear engineers had a limited capacity to produce fissionable materials and bomb assemblies. In 1949 the United States could have assembled 169 atomic bombs for a war plan that required more than twice that number of weapons. The 1948 SANDSTONE tests at Eniwetok, however, produced important breakthroughs for bomb design by producing a re-engineered core of plutonium and uranium that dramatically reduced the cost and size of each bomb while increasing its yield. The available uranium, thought to be in short supply, could now be distributed to many more bombs of greater accuracy and explosive power. The AEC in 1949 believed it could meet a JCS program target of 400 atomic bombs by 1953; in fact, the bomb builders produced 429 bombs by 1951, and by 1953 the American arsenal of nuclear weapons had grown to 1,152.

To deliver the bombs, however, produced other challenges. Not until 1948 did the Air Force have a single team capable of assembling a droppable bomb, and the custody of nuclear weapons remained in the hands of the AEC until 1953. The Strategic Air Command, equipped with B-29s and the postwar improved B-29 (the B-50), had little ability to deliver nuclear weapons. In 1948 SAC had around thirty trained crews and properly equipped aircraft, but when SAC’s new commander, General Curtis E. LeMay, tested his force, not one crew could place a weapon on target in conditions approaching those of wartime.

The nation’s nuclear weakness did not prevent policymakers from putting the atomic bomb at the center of U.S. strategy. A presidential Air Policy (Finletter) Commission and a similar congressional committee both reported in 1948 that the threat of nuclear retaliation was the cornerstone of defense policy. Atomic warheads and intercontinental delivery systems would probably outstrip the ability of defensive systems to stop them, so ready offensive air forces seemed essential to deter war in the first place. After several false starts, the JCS approved its first postwar joint emergency war plan, HALFMOON, in 1948, followed by a more elaborate plan in 1949, DROPSHOT. These plans placed primary emphasis on the use of nuclear weapons to strike Russian urban-based industry, especially petroleum and electrical targets. The military planners believed that Western Europe could not be defended in a general war. Instead, the United States would have to depend upon air strikes mounted from Great Britain, the Middle East, and Japan to defeat the Russians. The only commitment of nonnuclear air and ground forces would be related to holding air bases and the oil resources in the Middle East. The difficulty with the war plans was that the number of bombs the planners required exceeded the supply of weapons and aircraft needed to deliver them. The JCS also recognized a further complication: The war plans demanded overseas bases for SAC, since the Air Force did not have an adequate intercontinental capability. Truman paled at the prospect, but he approved the military’s concept of fighting a nuclear war if deterrence failed.

Within the government, argument raged in 1949 on how to make nuclear weapons a credible deterrent. One obvious answer was to improve the size and effectiveness of Strategic Air Command, an Air Force responsibility pursued in the development of the B-36, an intercontinental bomber, and of an in-flight refueling capability for the B-29s and B-50s. Within SAC, General LeMay drove his crews to higher efficiency through morale-building programs and realistic, demanding training. The major issue, however, became the development of a more awesome weapon. A civilian-military coalition of advocates, led by scientists Edward Teller and E.O. Lawrence and AEC Commissioner Lewis Strauss, urged the government to give top priority to producing a fusion, or hydrogen, bomb. Fraught with both theoretical and engineering problems, the “super bomb” program, which promised to produce weapons in the megaton (a million tons of TNT) range, had taken a backseat to the perfection of fission weapons, largely through the influence of the AEC’s General Advisory Committee, dominated by J. Robert Oppenheimer. In brutal bureaucratic infighting that eventually drove Oppenheimer from government service, the AEC recommended in 1949 that the “super” project go forward on a crash basis. Convinced by JCS and AEC studies that the H-bomb represented only a logical extension of nuclear strategy, Truman approved the new emphasis on the fusion weapon program in January 1950.

The advent of nuclear weapons sharpened interservice competition for military missions, since all the services wanted to develop forces capable of waging nuclear war while maintaining their ability to handle more traditional short-of-war tasks and general war mobilization. Within the budget ceilings imposed by the Truman administration—one-third of the federal budget, or roughly $10 billion to $13 billion—the military programs could not all be funded. In fact, the money, spread among the services, bought only skeleton forces, meager research and development, and a great deal of bitter controversy. In the War Department the postwar Army Air Forces sought complete service autonomy, built around nuclear weapons and the strategic deterrence/war role. The ground Army sought a comprehensive universal military training law that would allow it to mobilize a trained wartime force for the next war, based on compulsory citizen peacetime training. Both the AAF and the Army thought largely in terms of general war with the Soviet Union in Europe. The Navy and the Marine Corps, on the other hand, tried to integrate general war (nuclear or not) preparation with their traditional conceptions of sea power. The Navy Department sought to hold on to its full World War II force structure (carrier task forces, land-based antisubmarine aviation, the Fleet Marine Force, the submarine force) while adapting it to nuclear weapons. By the late 1940s the Navy had cruise and ballistic missile experiments underway for both its submarines and surface ships. It had introduced the Midway class (45,000 tons) carrier for new attack jets, and in 1948 Congress approved plans for United States, a 65,000-ton carrier that could carry nuclear-capable bombers. In March 1949 Navy pilots flew a patrol bomber with a 10,000-pound simulated bomb from the east coast to California and back again without landing. This project dramatized the Navy’s general war strategy, which was to launch air strikes against land air bases from 500 miles at sea, followed by additional attacks against Russian naval bases with shorter-ranged naval planes. The Marine Corps also looked to new aviation to preserve amphibious landing operations; close air support aircraft and helicopters would overcome the dispersion that nuclear weapons would force upon amphibious task forces.

Military missions joined the related issues of funding, defense organization, and strategy to produce five years of political upheaval in defense policy. The first round of controversy opened when the War Department in 1945 submitted to Congress a JCS-approved plan for reorganizing the armed forces. The Army plan, which granted autonomy to the Air Force, argued that national military policy would be improved by establishing a single defense staff headed by a single military officer, supervised by a single civilian defense secretary. The new organization, which reflected the War Department General Staff system and the World War II theater unified commands, would “unify” the armed forces by giving the single defense chief and defense secretary the dominant voice in deciding roles and missions and preparing annual budgets. The proposal assumed that interservice competition was the most important barrier to more effective defense planning.

The Navy Department, led by the redoubtable James V. Forrestal, fought the Army plan to a standstill in the White House and Congress, for it saw the War Department plan as a blueprint for the end of its maritime security mission. Forrestal knew the unpublished assumptions of the War Department proposal: Cuts in naval aviation, the transfer of land-based naval air to the Air Force, no Navy nuclear weapons, the reduction of the Marine Corps to minor peacetime security functions. A future war, probably with the Soviet Union, would not involve major naval campaigns, since the Russians did not have a global navy. Therefore, so the Army and AAF planners thought, the Navy should finally relinquish its role as the first line of defense, surrendering that function to the Air Force. Forrestal and his staff retaliated with an alternative plan, designed by Ferdinand Eberstadt, an expert wartime mobilizer. For interservice relations Eberstadt’s plan continued the JCS and theater unified command system, which would prevent the arbitrary assignment of roles and missions by a single chief of staff. Moreover, Eberstadt argued that the major planning difficulty was not interservice rivalry but the lack of civilian-military, interagency coordination in the executive branch. He therefore proposed a new set of agencies to centralize broad planning, coordinate intelligence collection and analysis, conduct mobilization resource planning, sponsor scientific research and development, and supervise education and training. Eberstadt’s plan, quickly adopted by Navy partisans in Congress, checkmated the War Department proposal, since it allied serious issues with considerable political emotion.

For almost two years (1945–1947) two coalitions of defense reorganizers battled until Truman and Congress, exhausted by the struggle and anxious about Russia, forged the National Security Act of 1947, the fundamental legislation on postwar organization. In the balance, the law represented a Navy victory. The president would set policy in consultation with a National Security Council, which drew its statutory membership from old and new agencies: The president, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the military department secretaries, and the chairman of the National Security Resources Board. Although the latter agency, along with similar R&D and munitions boards, did not last, another new organization—the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)—prospered. The new defense organization—labeled the “national military establishment”—was not a centralized, “unified” system but a federation on the World War II model. The secretary of defense, aided by a small staff, had only general, coordinating powers. He was held hostage to three military departments (Army, Air Force, and Navy) with separate secretaries and staffs. The law also specified service roles and missions, particularly for the Navy and Marine Corps, which saved all naval aviation functions and the Fleet Marine Force by inspired lobbying with Congress. Interservice relations remained bound to the JCS system of military negotiation; the JCS did not even have a formal chairman. Navy partisans were even more pleased with what had been avoided. Secretary of War Robert Patterson would not accept the new defense post, and Forrestal became the first secretary of defense. General Eisenhower did not become a single, powerful military defense chief and could only function informally as a presidential adviser. Only Congress could approve the reallocation of basic service combat roles and missions.

The National Security Act represented the end of one battle, not the end of a war. Although Congress rejected the Army’s proposal for universal military training (instead it reestablished a limited draft in 1948, mostly to stimulate recruiting), it showed high interest in enlarging the Air Force’s budget. Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington and Air Force Chief of Staff Hoyt S. Vandenberg (whose uncle was a prominent Republican senator) bedeviled Truman and Forrestal with their successful congressional lobbying. Unable to reconcile the JCS’s budget requests, which ran about twice the money Truman would allow, Forrestal gathered the chiefs at Key West, Florida, and Newport, Rhode Island, in 1948 to hammer out a gentlemen’s agreement on roles and missions. The Navy could develop nuclear weapons for all phases of a naval campaign, and the Marine Corps could develop air-ground amphibious forces, but the Navy could not have a strategic air force and the Marine Corps a ground army. Forrestal, however, could not create defense consensus under service and congressional pressure. Suffering from a nervous breakdown that led to his suicide, Forrestal surrendered his office in March 1949 to Louis Johnson, a former Army officer and assistant secretary of war, Democratic national fundraiser, and Truman intimate. Directed to curb interservice dissent and hold the line on the defense budget, Johnson tried to impose a solution to the persistent roles and missions conflict. In drafting the fiscal year 1951 defense budget ($13.5 billion), Johnson struck a deathblow at naval aviation by canceling the supercarrier United States, cutting the active carrier force from eight to four, and reducing carrier air groups from fourteen to six. Another battle, “the revolt of the admirals,” immediately blazed.

For most of 1949 Air Force and Navy partisans, in uniform and mufti, used Congress to conduct an erratic, bad-tempered review of defense policy and organization. The result was an administration victory for its nuclear strategy and low defense budget. A Navy attempt to discredit the B-36 bomber program foundered, for Johnson would not approve a Navy proposal to test fighter-interceptors against SAC’s bomber force. The Navy made some prescient debating points about the dangers of pinning deterrence solely on nuclear weapons, but it could not destroy Johnson’s bare-bones budget or convince Congress that Army and Air Force planners had a limited vision of the military future. The secretary of the navy resigned in protest, and Johnson removed Chief of Naval Operations Louis E. Denfeld in retaliation for the CNO’s aggressive political offensive against the B-36. When Congress finally concluded its hearings in late 1949, the strategic issues remained unresolved.

In organizational terms, however, “the revolt of the admirals” contributed to a consensus that the “national military establishment” needed an overhaul. Even Ferdinand Eberstadt, who led an investigation of defense management in 1948, admitted that his handiwork of 1945–1947 needed refinement. The result was a 1949 amendment to the National Security Act that strengthened the powers of the secretary of defense. The secretary received a deputy secretary and three assistant secretaries to improve his managerial effectiveness. More important, the law created a single Department of Defense with three constituent military departments; the law eliminated the military department secretaries from the National Security Council and the cabinet. In addition, presumably to curb interservice rivalry, Congress approved the position of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Although the chairman did not yet have a vote on the JCS, he became the principal adviser to the secretary and the president. He did not become a statutory member of the NSC, which added only the vice president as a new formal member, but in practice the president could invite anyone he chose, and he often asked the chairman and the director of the CIA to attend and to advise him directly. In terms of influence, the 1949 amendment started a trend to centralize defense policy planning in the office of the secretary of defense. The secretary, presumably, could use his budgeting powers to decide disputes that the JCS could not reconcile as long as he could avoid a presidential or legislative veto.

For the armed forces, the functional and organizational disputes of the late 1940s helped create an environment that encouraged civilian intervention in military affairs, even in matters that might have been narrowly interpreted as “internal, professional” matters. The postwar years opened an era of controversy about the relationship of the armed forces to reform within American society. In 1950 Congress approved the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), which extended civilian substantive and procedural legal principles to the armed forces. Influenced by legal reformers, veterans’ groups, and other public lobbies, Congress accepted their testimony that “military justice” was an arbitrary tool to enforce discipline and strengthen the privileges of the officer corps. In concert with a presidential study of officer-enlisted relations and morale by the Doolittle Commission, the reform movement attacked the powers of commanding officers by reducing their disciplinary discretion and enhancing the powers of military and civilian lawyers. The ultimate appeals court, for example, became a three-man, all-civilian Court of Military Appeals. Although the armed forces eventually adjusted to the new, time-consuming jurisprudence, some officers used the UCMJ as an excuse to abdicate their leadership responsibilities, which did nothing to improve the efficiency of the postwar armed forces.

The armed forces also faced major changes in their social composition in the postwar period. As the World War II veterans left the service, the male enlisted force dropped dangerously in age, education, and class background, which made training it more difficult. The decline in recruit quality helped justify two far-reaching manpower reforms. In 1948 Congress passed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, which gave women the prospect of a military career, largely in nursing, health services, and administrative fields. Similar manpower and political concerns moved Truman to order the racial integration of the armed forces in Executive Order 9981 (July 1948). The armed services viewed the reform with alarm, fearing that racial integration would further demoralize the troops and reduce white recruiting. Instead the Army, the Air Force, and the Marine Corps maintained token all-black units. The Navy in principle had integrated its enlisted force, but its recruiting and training policies in effect forced two-thirds of black sailors to the Steward’s Branch. The services argued that unrestricted assignments on the basis of individual qualifications and the use of black career officers in integrated units jeopardized military efficiency, despite World War II evidence that at least this was not the case with the former policy. Senior military commanders battled with civilian reformers to retard the execution of 9981 through the use of quotas and slow-paced integration. In sum, the integration of women and blacks further upset the undermanned, marginally effective armed forces.

From every perspective postwar defense policy seemed calculated to widen the gap between military responsibilities and capabilities, a gap that could not be narrowed by nuclear weapons, defense reorganization, and social reform. As the sense of external threat mounted by 1949, the Truman administration sought additional ways to make deterrence work without a major upturn in military spending. After lengthy negotiations the United States committed itself to its most ambitious exercise in collective, forward defense—the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). NATO kept the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down. In April 1949 the United States joined the signatories of the Brussels Pact and Canada, Iceland, Portugal, Italy, Denmark, and Norway in a pledge that every NATO nation would henceforth regard an attack on one member as an attack on the entire alliance.

The treaty could mean several things, a fact demonstrated when the Senate debated it. Members of the executive branch and the Senate, which approved the treaty by an 82–13 vote, had different conceptions about the extent of America’s NATO participation. One faction argued that extending nuclear deterrence in principle sufficed; conventional forces should be a European responsibility. European leaders argued that their nations could not provide the social reforms demanded by their people and rebuild their shattered economies and still maintain forces that could match the Russians. The JCS led another American faction that took the Europeans’ part. The United States should station conventional air and ground units in Europe as part of a NATO command, if only to secure bases for naval and air action against the Soviets. The only substantial action came in the form of adding arms to the European aid program. In October 1949 Congress approved the administration’s Mutual Defense Assistance Act, which provided $1.3 billion in military equipment and services for NATO. A month later the new NATO Defense Committee approved its first “integrated” defense program, but this plan did little more than ratify the status quo, since it assumed that NATO nations would provide those forces in which they “specialized.” For the United States this concept meant strategic nuclear air forces and naval forces to protect shipping lanes from Russian submarines.

Within the government a coalition of policy planners, led by Secretary of State Acheson, agreed that the Truman administration needed to reassess the military meaning of “containment.” In January 1950 a group drawn from the State Department’s policy planning staff and the JCS strategic planning staff conducted a three-month study and presented its findings to the National Security Council as NSC Memorandum 68 (NSC 68). The study concluded that the Soviet Union presented a long-term threat to the United States and world peace, a threat that would increase with Russian nuclear forces and continued deployments in occupied Eastern Europe. The United States had four choices: Continue its current policies, retreat into unilateral isolationism, wage preventive war, or increase its own and its allies’ military strength in order to deter Soviet expansionism and war. The study group estimated that the latter alternative was preferable, even if it increased the defense budget to $40 billion a year. Without denying the logic of NSC 68, Truman, however, took no action on the memorandum, for he judged that Congress and the public would not support a more ambitious defense program. Without some additional crisis the United States would have to rely upon its feeble nuclear retaliatory capability. Little did the president realize that Asian Communists half a world away would give him the opportunity to do what he and his advisers already knew had to be done—rearm the United States for an extended Cold War.

A War in Korea

Much to the surprise of the Truman administration, the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) crossed the 38th Parallel on June 25, 1950 and opened a three-year war for control of the Korean peninsula. The Korean War brought a major shift in United States military policy, for it provided an atmosphere of crisis that allowed the nation to mobilize for one war in Asia and rearm to deter another war in Europe. By the time the conflict ended in an uneasy armistice in July 1953, the United States had tripled the size of its armed forces and quadrupled its defense budget. It had also redefined the Communist threat to a challenge of global proportions.

Korea had been a backwater of American postwar diplomacy, and it did not loom large as a military concern. Divided in 1945 by an arbitrary line at the 38th Parallel so that occupying Russian and American forces could disarm the Japanese and establish temporary military administrations, Korea had by 1950 become part of the Cold War’s military frontier. In North Korea, the Russians had turned political control over to the Communist regime of Kim Il-sung. The American dilemma in South Korea centered on the lack of a legitimate political movement to turn into a government. The State Department complicated finding a successor by agreeing with the Soviets in December 1945 that Korea should pass through a short trusteeship period that would end in a unified, neutral, lightly armed Korea, an Asian version of the arrangements for occupied Austria. Every political faction except the South Korean Labor Party (the southern Communists) opposed trusteeship. The American zone became a battleground with an anti-occupation revolt in the autumn of 1946. The U.S. Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) managed to beat back the center-left labor and agrarian protest movements, but only by forming alliances with Koreans suspected of collaboration with the Japanese, populist fascists linked to the Chinese Nationalists, westernized liberals, regional political bosses, veterans of Japanese military service, and rabid anti-Communist associations of refugees from North Korea. The leftist oppositionists, led by the SKLP, set up a shadow government in North Korea and started an insurrection in the American zone designed to frustrate UN-sponsored elections in May 1948.

Although political violence had plagued the USAMGIK since 1945, the insurgency of April 1948 became a nationwide guerrilla war. Kim Il-sung nurtured the conflict by arming the SKLP partisans and opening a border war in late 1948 that supported partisan infiltrations and mutinies in the South Korean armed forces. The 1948–1950 war in the Republic of Korea (as southern Korea became in August 1948) killed more than seven thousand ROK soldiers and policemen and at least thirty thousand partisans, SKLP supporters, and innocent bystanders. The Korean National Police and Korean Constabulary, which became the ROK army, survived defections and betrayals and conducted effective, if punitive, counterpartisan operations under the supervision of the U.S. Army Korean Military Advisory Group (KMAG). Despite the war, the Koreans elected delegates to a constitutional convention that adopted a republican constitution and, under that constitution, elected a National Assembly, which chose Syngman Rhee, a well-known anti-Japanese expatriate, age sixty-eight, as president. Rhee, American diplomats thought, was the least bad choice for his office.

Viewed from Pyongyang, the partisan war in South Korea offered the opportunity to create a unified Communist Korea, modeled after the Communist victory in China. Secure in his Soviet patronage, Kim Il-sung went to Moscow in March 1949 to seek Stalin’s approval and assistance in invading the ROK, to aid SKLP guerrillas with the NKPA conventional forces. Stalin said “no” or at least “not yet.” He set forth several preconditions for Soviet support of a North Korean invasion. The last U.S. Army combat troops had to leave South Korea, which occurred in June 1949. There should be no chance of a timely American intervention from Japan. The Rhee regime and the ROK army had to be near collapse or defection. The partisans must make a dramatic “Second Front” attack on ROK military bases throughout the country. The North Korean army must be enlarged, more heavily armed with tanks and artillery, and trained by a new Soviet military mission. And Mao Zedong must agree to assist Kim if the North Koreans needed military help. Kim agreed to these terms and worked for a year to meet them—or promise that they would occur. The key elements were Chinese support and American withdrawal, the latter a critical error by the United States. None of the suicidal conditions attached to the ROK came to pass, although Rhee did lose supporters in the National Assembly elections of 1950.

The South Korean security forces suppressed the SKLP partisans, but did not have the weapons and training to stop the NKPA armor and heavy artillery. The KMAG feared an invasion. It reported that only half the ROK army had enough weapons and training to be combat-ready and had no effective antitank weapons, no tactical air force, and no artillery capable of matching the NKPA. Within South Korea, an invasion seemed certain. The imponderables were its timing and the American response. The KMAG and ROK army generals predicted an invasion, but American leaders in Tokyo and Washington missed or ignored the reports.

The American position was that South Korea had no strategic value, which meant it could not be used as a base in a U.S.–U.S.S.R. World War III. The ROK army of about 100,000 was not a strategic asset, which meant it could not defend American air and naval bases in South Korea, should they be needed, which seemed unlikely. Interviews, news stories, and congressional testimony on the U.S. defense budget placed no value in holding South Korea. The ROK army looked too much like the Chinese Nationalist army, prone to surrender or abandon U.S. Army heavy weapons. Not arming the ROK army, diplomats and generals said, prevented it from attacking North Korea. Rhee and some of his generals did chant “pukjin tong-il” or “march north for freedom,” but KMAG knew there was no ROK army ability to do so. The Pentagon did not want to send scarce and costly tanks, guns, and aircraft to Asia when NATO needed them.


The creation of the People’s Republic of China (October 1949) forced the Truman administration to redirect its Asian foreign policy. Defending Japan seemed the only compelling strategic requirement. Taiwan would not be defended, at least in a U.S.–Quomindang alliance. South Korea had some residual value in the defense of Japan, but was not an essential ally. In a major foreign policy address in January 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson admitted that South Korea had no role in strict strategic terms. Its security was a United Nations responsibility, supported by the United States. Republican critics later charged Acheson with “selling out” South Korea, but their cause was really Taiwan’s survival. To save South Korea, the administration had to save the Chinese Nationalists. No doubt Chinese and Soviet intelligence analyzed Acheson’s speech, but it was not a determining factor in the North Korean invasion. Rather, Kim Il-sung profited from a Soviet-Chinese mutual security and economic assistance treaty accepted by Stalin in February 1950. The North Koreans could then exploit the U.S.S.R–PRC pact to their military advantage. For example, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) transferred two Korean divisions to the NKPA and released thousands of other PLA veterans to fill up Kim Il-sung’s infantry divisions. Artillerymen and tankers came from training bases in the U.S.S.R. Eventually Kim fielded an eleven-division army of 135,000 soldiers seasoned by service in the Soviet and Chinese Communist armies. The NKPA was a pocket model of its Soviet counterpart, armed with T-34 tanks, heavy artillery, and attack aircraft, all of which were brought to bear in June 1950 along the 38th Parallel.

Within two weeks of the NKPA invasion—while the armies of the Republic of Korea (ROK) fell back in disarray—the Truman administration established the international and domestic political foundation for an extended and substantial American military commitment to Korea. Of highest importance was Truman’s determination to use the war as a test of the United Nations’ ability to meet aggression with collective military action. Assisted by Russia’s temporary absence, the United States guided several resolutions through the Security Council that gave the intervention United Nations sanction. The aim of UN action in July 1950 was to restore the prewar border and stop the war, either by negotiation or battlefield victory. In popular interpretation the war became an international “police action” rather than a national conflict. Nevertheless, Truman also requested and received overwhelming congressional support for emergency, war-related measures: Supplemental defense funds, draft extensions, reserve mobilization, and expanded presidential powers. Truman consulted with congressional elders about the commitment of American ground troops and found them acquiescent. In the traumatic days of June 1950 the president might have received a formal declaration of war if he had so chosen, but he and his advisers regarded their actions as fully sanctioned by the United Nations charter. They also assumed the responsibility of fighting the war as part of a coalition whose ardor for the war waxed and waned outside American control.

In the Far East American military action did not stop the NKPA offensive until early September, and the UN forces—three scratch Army divisions from Japan and one from the United States—barely held on to a perimeter around the port of Pusan. Although air strikes and naval bombardments pummeled the NKPA, the ground actions produced one crisis after another for United Nations Command (General of the Army Douglas MacArthur) in Tokyo and the 8th U.S. Army (EUSAK) in the field, commanded by Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker, a sturdy tanker in the Patton mold. Critically short of essential weapons (e.g., less than one-fifth of its authorized tanks) and units, EUSAK entered the war a partially trained army that had just rotated about half its GIs back to the United States; it was critically short of trained infantrymen. Although it had a cadre of combat officers and NCOs, it did not rally until its ranks were reinforced with American soldiers and it received more artillery, tanks, and antitank weapons. (Korean conscripts shoved into American infantry units were of limited assistance.) EUSAK developed no offensive capability until it added units from outside the theater; the 5th U.S. Infantry Regiment, the 2d U.S. Infantry Division, and the 1st Marine Brigade. On Korea’s hot, dusty hills the Americans learned about combat the hard way. They battled T-34s with inadequate weapons, fell prey to night attacks, retreated in disorder, fought with desperate but ill-organized valor, surrendered, and were shot by their captors.

UN Command, however, had Douglas MacArthur. His towering ego nourished by five years as the surrogate emperor of Japan, MacArthur seized the diplomatic and strategic initiative in the Far East, exploiting the uncertainties of collective decision-making in Washington. Basically, MacArthur wanted to make the Korean War a showdown with international Communism. Regarding Asia as more critical to America’s future than Europe, MacArthur had few qualms about the risks of extending the war to Communist China or even to Asian Russia. He believed that the Nationalist Chinese, licking their wounds on Taiwan, could return to the fray with increased American assistance, a proposal immediately rejected by Truman. MacArthur also wanted to extend air and naval operations to North Korea (permission granted) and even to Communist bases in Manchuria (permission denied). To reverse the ground war, he planned an amphibious deep envelopment at Inchon and the recapture of the capital of Seoul, matched with a breakout from the Pusan perimeter. Drawing additional reinforcements from the United States—especially the 1st U.S. Marine Division—MacArthur launched the Inchon invasion on September 15. His plan seemed inordinately risky to every senior military officer who reviewed it, including the JCS and the Navy and Marine officers who commanded Operation CHROMITE. Nevertheless, MacArthur correctly assessed the weak NKPA resistance (more by faith than hard intelligence), and the Navy-Marine team found ways to overcome the physical perils of Inchon harbor, dominated by narrow channels and sharp tidal changes. A wealth of World War II experience prevailed, and in two weeks American troops had liberated Seoul. In the meantime EUSAK took the offensive and drove the NKPA back toward the 38th Parallel in disarray. Close air support and newly arrived artillery battalions reduced the NKPA by one-third in troops and two-thirds in tanks, artillery pieces, and trucks. The shift in military fortunes could have hardly been more dramatic.

The euphoria of victory brought the agony of decision. In October 1950, despite veiled Chinese hints of intervention, the United Nations, pushed by Harry Truman and ROK President Syngman Rhee, approved a change in war aims. Accepting MacArthur’s request to cross the 38th Parallel to finish the destruction of the NKPA, the Truman administration and the UN expanded the goals of the pursuit to include the reunification of Korea under UN supervision. Truman imposed trivial limitations on MacArthur’s offensive—keep American troops away from the Yalu River—in the hope that the Chinese would not intervene. MacArthur assured the president that the Chinese would stay out; and if they entered the war, he would bomb them to destruction. When Chinese troops first appeared on the battlefield in late October, punishing isolated American and ROK units, MacArthur wished away the threat as an inconsequential delay to his last grand offensive to the Yalu.

Exploiting the night and the worsening winter weather, 260,000 hardy light infantry of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) attacked EUSAK and the autonomous X Corps (the 1st Marine Division and two Army divisions on Korea’s northeast coast) in late November and sent UN Command reeling back toward the 38th Parallel. The defeat was both militarily and psychologically stunning. Reporting that “we face an entirely new war,” MacArthur asked the president to consider every option, from evacuating his forces from Korea to nuclear attacks on the Chinese. Truman agreed that the war had changed and issued a declaration of national emergency on December 15, accelerating reserve call-ups and rearmament programs with a fourth supplemental defense appropriation. With only one combat-ready division in strategic reserve, he had little to send MacArthur but replacements. In addition, Truman found his UN allies, especially Great Britain, reluctant to expand the war to China. Although the UN decided to fight on, it returned to its original war aims, the preservation of a free South Korea. It was a decision MacArthur could not accept.

Despite MacArthur’s dire predictions, EUSAK stabilized the front south of the 38th Parallel in January 1951 and even mounted limited counterattacks. Rebounding under the firm leadership of a new commander, General Matthew B. Ridgway, EUSAK pulled itself together. X Corps, fighting its way to the coast and evacuated by ship, returned to the front, and Ridgway soon commanded a true international army, with professional troops from the British Commonwealth, Turkey, Greece, Colombia, the Philippines, Ethiopia, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Thailand. Harassed by UN air strikes, the PLA had increasing difficulty mounting sustained offensives, for it suffered serious supply shortages that its coolie-carrier logistics system could not meet. In addition, EUSAK soldiers now understood Chinese night attacks and mass-infiltration tactics and could defend against them in depth and with massive firepower. When the PLA launched its last grand offensive in April–May 1951, EUSAK fell back in good order, fighting hard, and halted the attack without the crisis of the preceding winter. EUSAK then counterattacked with deliberate advances and awesome artillery and air support, and the PLA began to fall apart, with Chinese soldiers surrendering by the thousands. Despite MacArthur’s pessimism, the soldiers of UNC had proved they could hold South Korea.

In the meantime, Truman weathered the last and most serious test of his decision to limit the Korean War, a test mounted by Douglas MacArthur. Bitterly disappointed by his defeat at the hands of the Chinese, MacArthur pressured the administration to accept his own war aims. Marshaling heroic rhetoric—“There is no substitute for victory”—the general conducted a political campaign to open Communist China to direct attack by his own forces and the Chinese Nationalists. He continued to hint darkly about the use of nuclear weapons, an option Truman never seriously considered. Incident mounted after incident: Indiscreet press conferences, unauthorized contacts with Chiang Kai-shek, inappropriate challenges to the Communists, provocative correspondence with veterans’ groups and Republican congressional leaders, dark hints of treason by the UN allies, especially Britain. With the full approval of Acheson, new Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall, and the JCS, Truman finally relieved MacArthur and ordered him home in April 1951. Buoyed by his enthusiastic public reception and bathed in martyrdom, MacArthur took his case to Congress. In a memorable public address to both houses, he accused the administration of appeasement and defeatism before promising to fade away like an old soldier in a barracks ballad. Like most MacArthur predictions, the promise to disappear proved flawed, since the Senate held hearings on the war and defense policy. MacArthur produced harsh words and limited enlightenment but could not reverse the administration’s policy of limiting the war. As JCS Chairman General of the Army Omar Bradley stated, MacArthur’s wider war was “the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.” The concept that a theater commander could dictate global policy seemed to endanger the principle of civilian control as well as the professional stature of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Acutely aware that MacArthur’s proposals endangered his rearmament program and the development of NATO, Truman summed up the issue: “General MacArthur was ready to risk general war. I was not.” MacArthur faded away after his weak showing in the early presidential primaries of 1952. The war went on without him.

The United States Rearms

The Truman administration had an appropriate substitute for victory in the Korean War, and that substitute was the rearmament of the United States, the development of a collective security alliance based upon NATO, and the strengthened deterrence of the Soviet Union with both nuclear and conventional forces. When Truman submitted his four supplemental budget requests for fiscal year 1951, he made his dual goals clear: “The purpose of these proposed estimates is two-fold; first, to meet the immediate situation in Korea, and, second, to provide for an early, but orderly, buildup of our military forces to a state of readiness designed to deter further acts of aggression.” The president presented his priorities in reverse order, since the administration eventually spent 60 percent of the 1951–1953 defense budgets on general military programs and 40 percent on waging the war. In fiscal terms, defense outlays became two-thirds of all federal spending. Supplemental appropriations brought the 1951 defense expenditures to $48 billion, followed in the next two fiscal years by outlays of $43.9 billion and $50.3 billion. Although the budgets fell short of Department of Defense requests, the administration approached a “holiday” on defense spending in its relations with Congress that approximated the halcyon days of World War II.

Financially, the buildup was anything but orderly in its first year, but the Truman administration eventually patched together a program of increased personal income and corporate taxes and wage and price controls that checked inflation and preserved economic growth. Greater presidential authority over the economy, anathema to conservative Republicans, stemmed from several political adjustments. Warned by the defeat of several prominent liberal Democratic senators and representatives in the 1950 elections, the president backed away from his Fair Deal reform programs, especially those that cost money. Irritated by Louis Johnson’s political ineptness and residual liability as the agent of pre-Korea defense austerity, Truman in September 1950 appointed George C. Marshall as secretary of defense and Marshall’s trusted aide Robert A. Lovett his deputy. Truman agreed with Marshall’s insistence that he serve only one year and that Lovett be his successor. Marshall’s appointment gave the administration greater authority with Congress and pleased the JCS, who welcomed Marshall back to the Pentagon. Although Marshall and Secretary of State Acheson took their verbal lashings from the conservative wing of the Republican party, they gave the administration a tested, forceful team fully committed to the president’s rearmament policy.

Amply funded and skillfully managed, the Korean War rearmament program nevertheless had its intrinsic confusions, since it was two mobilizations for two wars. The real war in the Far East required fast and large reinforcements in men and materiel, especially after the Chinese intervention. The Department of Defense, however, had a more compelling concern: The possibility of a war with the Soviet Union. The administration’s military, diplomatic, and intelligence advisers estimated that by 1952 the Russians would have an optimum opportunity to initiate a general war with the United States and its NATO allies. By that time the Soviets were likely to have sufficient nuclear weapons—including hydrogen bombs—and aircraft to carry them to launch an attack on the continental United States. Just the threat of such an attack might so intimidate the United States that it would not use its own nuclear weapons to meet a Soviet conventional attack on Western Europe, where the Russian forces still outnumbered Western forces on an order of three to one in manpower and weapons. Even if the Soviets did not actually attack, the threat of such an attack might bring Soviet-leaning neutrality to most of Europe. The Truman administration accepted the “year of maximum danger” concept, but its dilemma extended far beyond 1952. It had to weigh the immediate demands of proxy war with the Communists against the long-term requirements of deterring general war.

U.S. Armed Forces 1945–1953






Pre-1950 estimated required forces

14 divisions 940,000 personnel

70 groups 400,000 personnel

1,043 ships 560,000 personnel

3 divisions 3 aircraft wings 108,000 personnel

Actual forces, June 1950

10 divisions 5 regiments 591,000 personnel

48 groups 411,000 personnel

683 ships 382,000 personnel

2 divisions 2 aircraft wings 74,000 personnel

Actual forces, 1953

20 divisions 18 regiments 1.5 million personnel

93 wings* 974,000 personnel

1,130 ships 808,000 personnel

3 divisions 3 aircraft wings 246,000 personnel

*The Air Force changed from groups to wings to describe two or more squadrons and supporting elements.

Constructing some sort of rational policy on military manpower dramatized the administration’s difficulties in weighing the conflicting demands of war waging and war deterring. In the Korean War’s first year the most pressing demand was to enlarge the active armed forces, accomplished by drafting 585,000 men and calling to active duty 806,000 reserves and Guardsmen. Even the massive call-up caused controversy, since the reserves, the majority of whom had had limited military training since World War II, went into active units, including those in Korea. Although the emergency required the wholesale infusion of experienced air and ground officers and enlisted men into EUSAK, the Far East Air Forces, and the 7th Fleet, the assignments caused substantial personal hardships and real equity problems. The problem was that Truman also activated eight National Guard divisions and supporting Air National Guard and ground Guard units to restore the strategic reserve in the United States, which had been stripped of regulars to reinforce EUSAK. These organizations had been receiving drill pay and included large numbers of enlisted men who had not seen World War II service. Reserve officers and NCOs fighting for the second time in Korea noticed the difference. In part to appease them, the Department of Defense introduced in early 1951 a policy with long-term implications: i.e., it would rotate combat veterans out of the war zone (and usually out of active service if so desired) after one year. The limited-tour policy increased the manpower demands, met largely by drafting 1.2 million more men, but dampened military and public criticism of the war.

In the middle of a war, the government grappled with the prospect that it would require larger standing and reserve forces after the war. It moved haltingly toward some long-range policy for an extended Cold War. Led by Truman and Marshall, enthusiasts for universal military training (UMT) resurrected their earlier proposal for compulsory short-term active service for training, followed by obligatory reserve service. Although Congress passed a Universal Military Training and Service Act in 1951, the legislation fell far short of creating a comprehensive plan. The act reaffirmed the principle of universal obligation and accepted earlier decisions to extend active-duty periods to two years and include eighteen-year-olds in the military pool. The law dealt primarily with manpower issues created by the Korean War, not its aftermath. The Congress, for example, did not tamper with two Selective Service System policies: To defer college students from immediate call-up and to allow local draft boards to make decisions on occupational and educational deferments. The law provided that veterans who had served less than three years on active duty not only retained a total of eight years of service liability, but had to serve a total of five years in ready-reserve status before reverting to the standby reserve. The distinction was significant, since ready reservists could be called to active duty by the president in an emergency without congressional approval and standby reservists could not. In other words, military service and reserve participation still flowed from the draft, not from true universal military training. Outside of voluntary participation by veterans in the reserves, reserve service appealed most to youths who sought escape from the draft. The law provided, however, that universal military training might be erected upon the extemporized manpower policies of 1950–1951.

Congress reviewed the proposals for UMT in 1951–1952 and rejected the concept, substituting instead the Armed Forces Reserve Act of 1952. The little compulsion that remained was tied to the operation of the draft. Although servicemen—draftees or volunteers—had an obligation to belong to the ready reserve if they had served less than four years on active duty, they did not have to participate in a reserve unit.

Truman’s rearmament policy rested upon the assumption that if deterrence failed, a war with the Soviet Union would be a protracted struggle in which nuclear weapons might open, but not close, the war. Although less than comprehensive, the administration’s manpower policy expressed a need for conventional forces. It also paid new attention to the potential problems of resource mobilization, enlarging its purchases of strategic materials from $1 billion (1946–1950) to $7 billion (1950–1953). In the Defense Production Act (September 1950), Congress gave Truman the power to bend industrial production toward military needs if normal contracting procedures did not suffice. Its policy of subsidizing mineral exploration produced dramatic quantities of weapons-grade uranium in the United States and Canada. Increased funding for nuclear weapons development brought important progress in the size and composition of the American nuclear arsenal. In 1951 the United States tested two small thermonuclear devices at Eniwetok in Operation GREENHOUSE, followed the next year with two additional tests during Operation IVY. One of the tests, the MIKE SHOT, incorporating Edward Teller’s experimental design for a thermonuclear bomb, produced a 10-megaton explosion. The second explosion, a fission weapon, produced a half-megaton explosion, which amply demonstrated America’s nuclear virtuosity. The scientific and engineering portents of the tests were enormous: The United States could reasonably expect to increase the number and yield of its nuclear weapons while reducing their size. Although the Soviet Union tested its first fusion weapon in 1953, it fell behind in the nuclear arms competition.

As the principal instrument of both deterrence and general war offensive power against Russia, the Air Force, especially the Strategic Air Command, profited most from the rearmament program. When the Korean War mobilization fell into balance with the long-range program in fiscal year 1952, the Air Force received a third more funds ($20.6 billion) than the Army ($13.2 billion) and the Navy ($12.6 billion). The Air Force broke through its 70-wing program, creating 95 wings and winning theoretical approval of eventual expansion to 143 wings.14 A third of the wings belonged to SAC, which doubled its personnel and aircraft in two years. In 1952 SAC put its first all-jet bomber, the B-47, into operation. To handle its expanded force and complicate Soviet targeting, SAC dispersed its forces from nineteen to thirty bases in the continental United States and from one to eleven bases abroad. In part dictated by the short range of the B-47 and the requirement for forward-based refuelers, the development of overseas bases in England and Morocco (and soon Spain and Libya) further committed the nation to a policy of forward, collective defense. SAC’s targeting doctrine reflected the growing complexity of its missions. Initially it had focused upon military-industrial targets related to Russia’s war-making potential. By 1953 it also had to target Soviet nuclear forces and weapons facilities and the Soviet air and ground forces that threatened NATO. As a series of strategic-scientific study groups reported, the proliferation of Soviet nuclear forces multiplied the target list and the number of aircraft and bombs SAC would need to make retaliation both a credible threat and plausible instrument for war fighting.

Although SAC received priority in funding, the rest of the Air Force expanded its role as the nation’s first line of defense during the Korean War era. One high-level study, Project VISTA, concluded that the defense of Europe required a NATO force of 10,000 tactical aircraft, some nuclear-capable, to offset ground forces inferiority. This concern allowed the Air Force to increase to 106 planned wings in 1953. In addition, other studies convinced Truman that the nation required a real air-defense system to counter the Soviet bomber threat. In 1951 the Air Force created Air Defense Command to develop an integrated system of interceptors, antiaircraft artillery and missiles, and radar warning. After much internal debate and scientific analysis, Truman in 1952 ordered the Air Force to construct a distant early warning (DEW) radar line across the top of the North American continent. Although pessimistic about its ability to stop Russian bombers from hitting American cities, the Air Force pursued the air-defense mission primarily as a means for protecting its SAC bases from a disarming first strike. The logic of the era, whether it started with the defense of NATO or air defense, always ended with a critical role for SAC’s bombers.

Complementing the strengthening of SAC and the extension of its protection to Europe, the Truman administration struck hard and fast to turn NATO into a formidable military alliance in 1950–1952. Truly alarmed at the prospect of additional Communist invasions, Truman, Acheson, Marshall, Bradley, and most of their advisers developed by the end of 1950 a comprehensive program for NATO and formed an effective trans-Atlantic political alliance with most of NATO’s senior statesmen. The NATO rearmers had five goals: Appoint an American as supreme military commander in Europe (SACEUR) and allow him to develop plans for an integrated NATO force; send more American forces to Europe; accelerate military assistance to the NATO nations; develop a forward strategy for defense at the borders of divided Germany; and create within NATO a West German army of twelve divisions. It was a large menu, and even the Americans sometimes disagreed on the method and timing for accomplishing their goals. Although the particulars of German rearmament brought the program to a temporary pause in 1953, the alliance had eighteen months of breathless accomplishment.

In December 1950 Truman nominated General Dwight D. Eisenhower to be the first SACEUR, a nomination hailed in Europe since the general brought vast experience and international prestige to the command. Truman also indicated that he would send more troops to Europe, and Acheson led a successful move to commit the NATO governments in principle to German rearmament. The prospect of sending more troops abroad set off a “great debate” in Congress that allowed isolationist Republicans to vent their ire but not stop the troops. Truman accepted a weak congressional prohibition that he could not send more than four divisions without further approval. By February 1951 the debate was over, and the Army began to move four divisions, which brought the 7th U.S. Army in Germany to six divisions. The United States example was followed by Great Britain, but France proved a reluctant ally. Although France was willing to risk a rearmed Germany if the Germans were integrated into a European Defense Community (EDC) structure, its foreign policy condemned ten divisions to service in Indochina, which left only nine in Europe. After the outbreak of the Korean War the Truman administration extended its aid to the French military effort in the Far East, in part to fight a two-front war against the Asian Communists, in part to subsidize a larger French NATO force and buy off French resistance to German rearmament. The policy was not an unvarnished success.

In the meantime, American policy toward Europe became increasingly linked to the carrot of military assistance. To the dismay of some State Department planners, the Truman administration sponsored a Mutual Security Act (1951), which severed economic aid from military assistance and put the administration of military assistance in the hands of the independent Mutual Security Agency. The reorganization eventually passed military aid into the hands of the Department of Defense, which used the Mutual Defense Assistance Program (MDAP) to influence foreign policy. Distributing over $20 billion in MDAP funds in 1951–1953, the United States championed the admission of Greece and Turkey into NATO in 1951 and improved diplomatic relations with fascist Spain and socialist Yugoslavia. None of these four nations was a military power, but they had attractive basing possibilities and gave NATO a southern frontier that might complicate Russian planning.

With General Eisenhower’s planners hard at work, the Truman administration set progressively higher goals for NATO’s forces. In September 1951 the Atlantic Council approved a forty-three-division force by 1954 and then escalated the alliance’s plan five months later. In the Lisbon Agreement (February 1952) the NATO ministers set a 1954 goal of 10,000 aircraft and eighty-nine divisions, half of which would be combat-ready. Such heady plans had torn loose of political and economic reality, but by 1953—even without the Germans—NATO could field twenty-five active divisions, fifteen in central Europe, and 5,200 aircraft dispersed to around 100 airfields. In two years NATO had become at least equal to the Soviet forces deployed in East Germany.

The West German rearmament plan, however, remained unfulfilled. The enthusiasm of the French National Assembly did not match the vision of the statesmen who saw NATO as the foundation of a united Europe. Instead, the leaders of the Fourth Republic hoped to wedge more military assistance and other concessions from the United States in exchange for approving the EDC treaty. West German rearmers, led by Konrad Adenauer, did not relish assigning their troops to NATO without the right to conduct their own foreign relations and create their own national military establishment. Negotiations over the terms of German rearmament dragged on past the end of the Korean War.

For all the confusion created by programs that mixed war waging, long-range rearmament, and strategic deterrence, the United States used the passing crisis of Korea to close the gap between the rhetoric of containment and its actual military capacity. Critics of the “militarization” of American diplomacy believed the rearmament policy was an exaggerated reaction to an overestimated Soviet threat. But the Russia of 1950–1953 was Stalin’s domain, and conventional wisdom gave Moscow the power to control its Communist collaborators in Europe and Asia. The Truman administration, buffeted at home by its political enemies and growing disillusionment over the war, had won a lasting victory for the Free World.

Korea: Settling for an Armistice

In 1951 United Nations Command won but could not end the Korean War. Guided by the revised war aims of the Truman administration and the Security Council, the UN international army restored the geographic integrity of the Republic of Korea by launching an offensive that captured the dominant terrain necessary to frustrate any further Communist attacks. After a false start at armistice negotiations in the summer of 1951, the Communists returned to the peace table, in part as a tactic to demoralize and divide the UN allies, in part to buy time to restore the shattered Chinese expeditionary force. Satisfied that his forces had established a line they could hold, General Ridgway, MacArthur’s replacement as supreme commander, shifted to the strategic and tactical defense in November. Only another year and a half of war along a relatively static front made the UN accomplishment seem less than a victory.

In sustained, bitter fighting EUSAK—a force of seven American, one Commonwealth, and ten ROK divisions—won the war in 1951 the hard way. Although the Communist and UN forces in 1951 both numbered roughly half a million men, the Chinese and Koreans put more combat troops into the lines, and they fought hard in their massive spring offensive and on the defensive for the rest of 1951. Blessed with massive artillery and close air support, EUSAK nevertheless had to best the Communists in close infantry combat, and it did so. Shifting to the offensive in June, the UN divisions bludgeoned the Communists back across the 38th Parallel everywhere but in the extreme west, a militarily insignificant area. In consultation with the JCS and his field commander, Lieutenant General James Van Fleet, Ridgway established a defensive zone labeled the KANSAS-WYOMING line that he wanted EUSAK to hold. The key to establishing this line was a network of valleys and high ridges that dominated the terrain just north of the 38th Parallel in central Korea, an area designated “the Iron Triangle.” Using primarily the American 2d Infantry and 1st Marine Divisions, EUSAK wrested the Triangle from the Communists in a series of wearing battles that took their names from the moonscape mountains: The “Punchbowl,” “Bloody Ridge,” and “Heartbreak Ridge.” Divisions to the east and west reached the KANSAS-WYOMING line with somewhat less difficulty.

With a valor and skill that reached the highest standards seen during World War II, the American and other UN troops destroyed the myth of PLA invincibility, inflicting casualties in a ratio over ten to one. Even the ROK divisions showed a higher degree of professionalism as hard experience weeded out incompetent officers and trained the enlisted men. So fearsome had EUSAK become in the autumn of 1951 that Van Fleet believed he could hammer the Communists deeper into North Korea, but American policy did not anticipate a return to the reunification campaign of 1950. Instead the Truman administration allowed Ridgway to respond to a Soviet ceasefire proposal in June 1951 by opening direct negotiations with the Communists at Kaesong in July. The talks produced nothing but a presentation of extreme positions and propaganda parry and thrust, and the fighting continued until more Communist battlefield defeats brought on serious truce talks in November.


The rebirth of EUSAK in 1951 came from the converging influence of many mobilization policies and battlefield reforms. EUSAK benefited from the charismatic leadership of Matthew B. Ridgway and the solid professionalism of James Van Fleet. The test of battle eliminated the less effective corps, division, and regimental commanders, who could be replaced with proven leaders with World War II experience. Once past the emergency days of 1950, EUSAK incorporated well-trained and intelligent draftees and reserves into its combat units; it also improved performance by eliminating all-black units and making itself the first fully integrated combat formation in American history. As industrial mobilization hit full effectiveness, EUSAK received ammunition and weapons in quality and quantity that offset the Russian materiel supplied the Asian Communists and blunted the Chinese-Korean manpower superiority in the front lines. At the same time, the infusion of American advisers and equipment, especially more artillery, brought the ROK divisions to progressively higher levels of military efficiency. Part of the frustration of the Korean War stemmed from the fact that the front-line troops and their commanders believed they could have accomplished more than they were asked.

UN Command’s air campaign, marked by geographic limitations and frustrations, contributed to the success of the allied war effort. In terms of offensive missions, the Far East Air Forces (FEAF) performed three major tasks: Air superiority, interdiction, and close air support. Except for the war’s opening months, the UNC did not worry about enemy air attacks on its troops and installations, although occasional Communist planes slipped through on night attacks. Instead, the F-86 “Saber” jets of 5th Air Force, FEAF’s major combat command, prowled the skies above North Korea, assigned the mission of destroying the Communists’ interceptor force. The Communists’ threat was substantial, since they kept about 1,000 MiG-15 jets deployed to bases along either side of the Yalu. With the exception of occasional MiG surges against UNC bombers, the F-86s kept the skies free for UN operations. Normally outnumbered three or two to one during air combat, the F-86s mastered the MiGs through greater pilot experience, tactics, teamwork, and sturdier aircraft. The MiG had excellent high-speed and high-altitude handling characteristics, but the Communist pilots, including hundreds of Russians, avoided combat far from their bases. In air battles FEAF jets downed 589 MiGs at a cost of 78 Sabres. The Air Force would have preferred to attack the MiG bases in China, where American airmen watched the MiGs flock up to “MiG Alley,” but the Truman administration would not widen the war unless UNC air superiority was truly menaced. It was not.

Limited to targets within Korea, FEAF concentrated on interdicting the battlefield, destroying enemy units, equipment, and supplies before they reached the front. Air attacks in 1950 against both the NKPA and the PLA blunted the Communist offensives. The major interdiction effort began when the front stabilized along the 38th Parallel. Estimating that the Communists required 2,400 tons of supplies a day—and even more for sustained offensive operations—FEAF planners mounted Operation STRANGLE in early 1951, a maximum attack upon the North Korean railway system. Ten months of sustained attacks on bridges, tunnels, marshaling yards, and other choke points along the rail routes did not “strangle” the Communists, who responded with a massive railroad repair effort. The Communists also increased their truck and porter carrying capacity to offset their loss of 12,000 locomotives and railcars. UNC pilots sang “We’ve Been Working on the Railroad”; the Communists presumably could have sung the same refrain as they filled the craters, cleared the wreckage, and relaid the track. The UNC pilots also patrolled the highways, which became jammed with trucks after nightfall. The technology and techniques for night attacks did not match the Communist motorized effort; UNC pilots claimed 82,000 vehicles destroyed, but the supplies kept coming. Although FEAF dropped the name STRANGLE, it did not stop the campaign of air interdiction pressure. Its aircraft flew twice as many interdiction sorties as they did air superiority and close air support missions, and Air Force and Marine squadrons lost 816 of the 1,041 aircraft downed in action to groundfire. Naval aviation also participated in the campaign, flying from the carriers of Task Force 77 and losing 564 aircraft in the effort. In the war’s last year FEAF received permission to broaden its target list, and it attacked the North Korean hydroelectric and irrigation dams with considerable success. The Communists howled about “genocidal” air attacks, a refrain picked up by other Third World nations and faint-hearted Europeans. The economic attacks came to a halt through political pressure, but also because North Korea had so few such vulnerable targets. To have been truly effective, interdiction would have had to reach into China and Asian Russia.

American aviators also provided EUSAK with close air support—i.e., air strikes against enemy troops and weapons engaged with friendly ground troops. The Air Force did not relish such missions because they required trained air control parties on the ground to put the bombs on target and not on friendly troops; such parties, the Air Force argued, demanded aviation personnel it could not spare. Air Force doctrine stressed the use of airborne spotter aircraft and limiting strikes to 1,000 yards from friendly troops. The 1st Marine Aircraft Wing and Navy attack squadrons, however, followed practices developed for amphibious warfare and delivered close strikes with a precision that gladdened the hearts of UNC infantrymen. Along a stabilized front, close air strikes also required precision artillery fire in order to suppress flak; such fire-support coordination demanded intimate air-ground collaboration, not common between EUSAK and FEAF. Marine and naval aviation assumed much of the burden for close air support for all EUSAK, but after 1950 UNC limited close air support sorties to an average of ninety-six a day, or about eight per division. Army and Marine ground commanders did not regard the sortie rate as adequate.

The close air support issue assumed even greater importance as the Army and Marine Corps introduced helicopters to combat for the first time during the Korean War. The limited size and power of 1950 helos limited their use to reconnaissance and casualty evacuation missions until the Marine Corps began troop-carrying missions in 1951 with its Sikorsky HRS-1, which could carry eight combat infantrymen. By 1952 helos had become a common sight above UNC’s positions, but the concept of the vertical envelopment assault against defended positions went untested.

Battered by UNC ground and air assault, the Communists met the UN military negotiators at Panmunjom in November 1951 and opened the sustained, often acrimonious bargaining that eventually brought an armistice in July 1953. In four months of intense talks, the negotiators shaped an agreement, largely by identifying the provisions they would not accept. They agreed that they would establish a Demilitarized Zone along the line of contact when the fighting ended; both sides would have responsibilities and rights for inspecting the DMZ. The Communists, however, would accept few provisions for inspections beyond the DMZ and no formal limits on the forces stationed in North Korea. In light of Communist intransigence, UN Command rejected most provisions limiting the stationing of foreign troops in South Korea, and American planners had to accept the implications of the proposed truce: A massive buildup of the South Korean armed forces and the permanent stationing of American units in Korea. Nevertheless, the Truman administration, under intense pressure from its UN allies to end the war, decided it could accept a mere ceasefire, even if the Communist military threat remained immediate. The negotiating barrier to peace in early 1952 became the disposition of prisoners of war, a problem UNC underestimated because it did not view the issue from the same perspective as the Communists.

To UN Command, POWs were war’s unfortunates, but to the Communists they were instruments of combat. The Communists had every reason to regard the POW issue as an important propaganda issue. When UNC surveyed the 170,000 Chinese and Koreans in its hands, it estimated that half of them would not be repatriated voluntarily, an enormous embarrassment to the Communists. UNC held fast to the principle of voluntary repatriation. In the meantime, the Communist high command infiltrated organizers into UNC camps to intimidate the nonrepatriators and harass their guards; a full-scale revolt on the island of Koje-do in May 1952 ended in combat operations and discomfited UNC. The Communists showed a similar callousness in handling UNC prisoners. Of the estimated 7,245 Americans who may have fallen into Communist hands, only 3,800 returned. As many as 600 may have been murdered, while 2,806 died of illness under degrading conditions. Communist POW administrators used turncoats to control the POWs, and political officers extracted confessions of germ warfare and other alleged atrocities, largely from airmen, by direct physical and mental torture. Political indoctrination (“brainwashing”) sessions were common for all captives. The full nature of Communist POW treatment, of course, could not be investigated until the POWs returned, for escapes from the Communist camps were impossible for weak prisoners who found no assistance beyond the wire. UNC personnel attempted hundreds of escapes, but none succeeded. The Communists faced an even larger charge: Where were some 250,000 Korean soldiers and civilians under Communist control who disappeared during the war?

The most important strategic factor that delayed an armistice agreement, however, was the post-truce ability of the two rival Koreas to defend themselves against each other. The United States and China had one interest in common: They did not intend to keep large armies in Korea forever. The Chinese answer was to dig into North Korea’s mountains and create fortified positions miles deep along the DMZ and both coasts. Hailed as the underground equivalent of the Great Wall, the barrier systems could check amphibious envelopments and the use of nuclear weapons. The Chinese completed their digging in the summer of 1953. For the United States the focus stayed on the enlargement and improvement of the ROK army, planned for twenty divisions on a troop base of 500,000 soldiers, or five times its 1950 strength. By the summer of 1953 the JCS judged the ROK army (at sixteen divisions) capable enough to defend the South Korean border with two or three UNC divisions and U.S. air and naval support.

Stalin’s death in March 1953 accelerated the peace process because his successors-in-committee wanted the war, a drain on Soviet defense spending, ended and told Mao Zedong and Kim Il-sung to get an armistice in 1953. The Communists soon accepted a UN plan to allow POWs to refuse repatriation. The barrier now was Syngman Rhee, who thought a divided Korea, occupied in part by Chinese troops, would never survive. His tacit cooperation required more military aid, a $1 billion economic assistance package, a mutual defense alliance, and U.S. sponsorship as a UN member. It was a good deal at the time.

The war also continued along the Main Line of Resistance (MLR) established in the winter of 1951–1952. Although UNC and Communist numbers throughout Korea were comparable (700,000 to 900,000), the Communists enjoyed a trench advantage of two to one and used their manpower, improved artillery support, and the advantages of night and surprise to carry the battle to UNC. In many respects the fighting of 1952–1953 resembled the trench warfare of World War I without the “big pushes.” The MLR and its combat outposts became warrens of trenches, bunkers, barbed wire, mines, and heavy-weapons positions. Firing an average of a million shells a month, UNC artillery helped hold back the Communist probes. The war was a siege, with the Communists most anxious to dig and tunnel up to the outposts along the Iron Triangle and north of the Imjin River. UNC beat back most of the Chinese attacks, but tactical commanders, reluctant to risk lives, often underestimated the situation and committed units piecemeal, normally protracting the battles and ruining the units actually fighting. This tactical pattern did not inspire UNC soldiers, especially when recaptured terrain was eventually abandoned. Between the promise of the peace talks and the prospect of individual rotation, the morale of American combat units slipped, but UNC as a whole—bolstered by the professionalism of UN troops and improved ROK performance—held fast until the armistice.

Between the autumn of 1952 and the spring of 1953 the international context of the Korean War shifted, pointing the way to a ceasefire. In the 1952 presidential elections the Republican candidate, Dwight D. Eisenhower, won handily, in part on the promise that he would investigate the war. Once in office, Ike sent signals to the Communists that he might widen the conflict with Nationalist Chinese reinforcements and nuclear-capable aircraft deployed to Okinawa. Stalin’s death in March 1953 may have softened Soviet ardor when the surviving leaders turned to their rivalries and internal problems; in Asia the Communists were close to victory in Indochina and did not need a wider war in Korea. In political terms the principal American problem became convincing the hard-bitten Rhee government to accept a peace, for Rhee feared a sellout. He softened his resistance when he received guarantees of increased military assistance, the presence of American troops, and a mutual security treaty with the United States. Of the negotiating issues, the Communists finally accepted the reality of voluntary repatriation, managed by an international commission. Rhee encouraged their cooperation by ordering his guards to turn loose 27,000 North Korean prisoners. In any event—in the midst of some of the heaviest action along the MLR—the truce talks moved rapidly, and the belligerents finally agreed to an armistice on July 27, 1953. With few emotions beyond relief and exhaustion, UNC troops along the MLR ceased fire—but held their positions with loaded weapons.

The Korean War marked a major turning point in post-1945 American military policy. It provided the political context for rearmament and the development of NATO. It also drew the United States into a more active military role in Asia, which now joined Europe as part of the Free World system of collective, forward defense. During the course of the war or shortly after its conclusion, the United States entered mutual security agreements with Japan (which began its own rearmament), the Republic of Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand. More ominously, the Truman administration increased its support to the French war in Indochina, but it also demanded that the French develop Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam as autonomous states. The costs of the Korean War itself were not inconsequential. The American government spent around $40 billion to fight the war and sent over 2 million men to the war zone. Of these servicemen 33,741 died in action, and another 2,835 perished in the war zone. America’s allies, principally the South Koreans, had 61,000 killed in action, while the Communists lost between 1.5 and 2 million soldiers. If “limited” in the global sense, the war reached major proportions in north Asia. Only a later Asian war would diminish the legacy of the nation’s only major victory in a war with Communists.

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